When it comes to online dating sites, your profile photos can make you, and they can break you. You may live a life to make James Bond jealous and write with Oscar Wilde’s rapier wit, but a bad dating profile photo will scare off potential dates faster than “Well, the doctor says it’s not infectious but…”
Fortunately the secret to looking better in photos is simple: have a friend who’s really good with Photoshop.
OK, I keed, I keed. You really don’t want that. After all, the goal of dating profiles is to actually meet people in person. I don’t care how goddamn charming you might be, starting a date with the realization that you’ve lied is going to guarantee that you’re going home alone.
(Plus, one of my side-jobs is doing photo touchups and I really don’t need the competition)
More seriously, there’s more to looking good in photos than trying out the tips you’ve seen on America’s Next Top Model.
No, if you want to bring out your photogenic side, you have to know more than just have to pose. You have to understand how men and women react to different poses, how cameras work and the physics of light.
Intimidated? Don’t be. It’s all actually surprisingly simple.
Know The Camera Hierarchy
All cameras are not created equal.
The mechanics of how different cameras work cause striking differences in how the photos work… and how people react to them.
Cameras are differentiated by their complexity. In order, you have your single-lens reflex cameras (cameras with interchangeable lenses, including the 4/3rds and micro-4/3rds cameras), compact or point-and-shoot cameras (cameras with focus-free lenses or automated focusing, automated exposure, shutter speed and depth of field control) and finally camera phones and webcams (cameras that lack almost any exposure or aperture control, fixed-focus lenses, smaller sensors and a lack of shutter entirely).
Similarly the quality of photos taken with those cameras varies by the complexity. SLRs take the best, followed by point-and-shoots and then camera phones.
If you’re doing the “shoot yourself in the mirror with your iPhone” pose, you’re doing yourself a drastic disservice; not only is it not an attractive pose in the first place, but you’re using a camera that actually makes you look worse.
Every camera, regardless of how expensive or how many megapixels it shoots in, introduces a certain amount of distortion by virtue of the lens. Cheaper lenses will tend towards greater distortion.
You’re also missing out on finer levels of control with the less complex cameras. Even with the massive improvements in cellphone cameras (especially with the iPhone 4 and 4s), cellphone cameras lag drastically behind even cheap point-and-shoot cameras. The smaller sensors and fixed focus lenses take control out of the hands of the photographer; even the most complex camera phones are restricted by a lack of ability to change the focal length, the zoom and depth of field.
SLRs represent the best option for good-looking photos; the wider range of options allows for better looking photos with less distortion that can inadvertently make you ugly. The sole advantage of point-and-shoot cameras and cellphones are their portability; even micro 4/3rds cameras aren’t quite as pocketable as modern compacts.
Know How To Use Your Tools
No matter which camera you’re using, you need to understand how to use it to show you off to your best advantage. Automatic is fine if you’re taking travel snaps, but not for dating profile photos. Automatic settings like “Portrait” will produce a better result if you’re using a point-and-shoot, but your best options are to control the ISO settings and the aperture. The higher the ISO your camera is set to (or the higher the ISO of your film if you insist on doing this old-school), the less light you need to capture the image; this also corresponds to a higher level of graininess in your images, which can distract from the subject i.e. you. Use the lowest possible ISO and still capture a well-exposed image. If you have to crank the exposure in Photoshop afterwards, it’s too dark.
You also want a shallow depth of field, where the main subject is tack sharp and everything around them has a soft blur. Not only is this effect visibly pleasing, but it helps you pop out from the background and keeps the (subjective) focus on you rather than allowing your surroundings to overpower the image. Photos with a shallower depth of field tend to feel more intimate; people feel a stronger personal connection to the subject, which helps increase the perceived attractiveness.
And NO FLASH. Tattoo this on your forehead backwards so you can read it in the mirror every morning. No flash, especially if you’re using a compact camera. On-camera flashes are hard, harsh lighting that will over-expose your face and add shadows and crags that you just don’t want. A harsh light will artificially age you by drawing attention to any flaws, crows feet, laugh lines, deepen shadows that will make your eyes look sunken in, your nose larger and blow out your skin tone. Unless you (or your photographer) is good at off-camera strobe-lighting… NO FLASH PHOTOGRAPHY.
Follow The Light
Natural light is your best friend when it comes to profile photos. Unless you’re working with a professional photographer (or a talented amateur), artificial lighting will almost always be too harsh; highlights will be overexposed, shadows will be too dark and hard-edged, and the color of the light itself will throw off the image.
However, you don’t want to just run outside and snap some photos. The time of day makes a huge difference; the closer to noon, the more overhead the sun will be and overhead light is nobody‘s friend regardless of the source. Afternoon is the prime time for lighting; as you approach sunset, the sunlight is more indirect and the blue light is scattered giving things a warmer glow. In fact, the hour right before sunset is known as the Golden (or Magic) hour, and it’s a beloved time for photographers.
But hey, ya’ll didn’t come here looking for The Strobist. You want more than just trivia about cameras and photography techniques. So let’s talk about how to make sure you look good when the you get your picture taken.
Posing: Ur Doin’ It Wrong
Let’s put some major mistakes out there first. These are the things you need to stop doing:
Ladies – The Duck Face. Some of you are still doing it. For fuck’s sake, stop that shit! You think you’re being cute and flirty. You’re looking like an idiot. It comes off as someone who wishes she was half-girl, half duck, half fish and all twit1 .
Also: the Myspace Angle and boob shots. Yes, they will get you attention. Lots of attention, in fact… if that’s what you’re looking for. Unfortunately, it’s a case of “quality” vs. “quantity”. Most of the messages you’re going to get will be about your boobs. The more cleavage, the more likely that guys are going to think you’re looking for hook-ups rather than relationships. All well and good, if that’s what you’re after. However if you’re not… well, then you’re going to be spending a lot of time cleaning “Nice rack” comments out of your inbox.
Gentlemen – Quit looking at the camera. Seriously. People have done studies on this. Women have better responses to men who are looking off into the distance than to those who try to make virtual eye contact. It adds a little bit of mystery and narrative. Women get better responses from looking at the camera and smiling. Men do not. Look away. Don’t smile. And quit showing pictures of you getting smashed at the last kegger you went to. Photos of you drinking or the waaaaaacky antics you get up to when you and your buddies got drunk may be funny when you put ’em up on Facebook. In an online dating context, you look like another DudeBro… and you don’t want that.
One pet peeve: the crop. Look, I know you’re trying to make sure that you’re the focus. Maybe it’s a photo of you and your ex that you look smashing in. Maybe it’s you with some of your friends. Ultimately the context doesn’t matter. The photo of you and 1/3 of another person just looks silly. It comes off as though these are the leftover pictures from a bad break-up in your teens. Either way, you have two choices: either leave them in, or don’t use the photo. And if you’re using a photo of several people, please make sure that you’re clearly highlighted. Don’t make folks have to guess via the other photos.
And ladies, gentlemen: show your goddamn faces. If you’re not showing your face in a photo, you’d better have something fascinating to make up for it.
Quick And Simple Tips For Looking Better In Photos
To start with: bring your chin down. Aiming your chin up just draws attention away from your face and towards your neck. If you’re afraid of a double-chin (or emphasizing one that’s already there), jut your head slightly forward. If it helps, imagine a thread attached to your chin that’s pulling your face slightly forward while your shoulders remain in place. In addition, placing your tongue to the roof of your mouth helps reduce (or eliminate) any neck-flap you may have.
If at all possible, be shot at an angle. It’s a rare person who looks best with face, shoulders and hips all facing the camera. Face the camera with your body turned slightly (ladies) or face the camera and look slightly to the side (gentlemen).
While we’re at it: don’t “pose”; you’re going to come off as stiff and unnatural. If you aren’t being shot “in the moment”, be doing something. Talk to someone near the photographer, reach for a book, something.
Work on your posture. It’s a very basic thing, but good posture makes you look better. This goes doubly true for when you’re being photographed.
If you’re going to smile for a photo, either have someone tell you a joke, or repeat one in your head. You want to laugh; this will help avoid the dreaded “fake smile” that you so often see in dating profile photos.
Above everything else, you need to relax. Stiffness and discomfort will telegraph in a photo and make the viewer feel uncomfortable. Since you’re hoping someone will think you’re attractive and want to message you about meeting up, the last thing you want to do is make them uncomfortable before they even meet you.
Put It All In Context
You want more than just a head-shot in your dating profile. After all, you’re trying to find a date, not audition for the supporting role in the next season of Dexter. You need to show off your personality.
Don’t just pose; have photos that have context to them. You want to be doing cool stuff in your photos. Guys, if you’re a musician and you don’t have pictures of you staring out into the middle distance while moodily strumming your guitar and brooding2 , then you’re just cutting yourself off at the knees. Similarly, if you have photos from travelling to exotic places, then put those suckers up there!
One thing you should never underestimate is the appeal of a cute fuzzy thing. Photos with pets are like catnip to messages when you’re on dating sites.
Well… most pets. Cats, dogs, bunnies, ferrets, chinchillas, cockatoos, cockatiels, caiques, guinea pigs… all good. Exotics like hedgehogs or prairie dogs: also good. Fish: not as much, really. Fish are kinda boring. Unless you’ve got a picture of a shark leaping out of the water at you, that falls firmly under “cool stuff”. Reptiles and amphibians are generally a no-no. The number of people who’ll appreciate your bearded dragon or your African bullfrog are few and far between.
Insects are right out. And frankly… geh. More than four legs creeps me out.
One particularly controversial issue regarding dating profiles are photos with the opposite sex. Women will often tell you that they dislike seeing pictures of guys with other girls in their profile photos. I’m often told that this makes it difficult for them to imagine themselves in there instead. Paradoxically however, being seen with other attractive women is actually an attractive behavior. A man who’s used to being around other attractive women is seen as being more confident; the subtext implies that he has something of value that other women have found… so perhaps she should investigate this as well.
As a rule of thumb for guys, I would include a photo of yourself with a woman or even a few women. I would not plaster them all over your account however; you don’t want to look like you’re just trying to rack up a collection.
(And no, pictures of you posing with the booth babes at cons don’t count.)
On the other hand, guys almost never like seeing dudes in a woman’s dating profile photos. Men are a competitive and jealous bunch; most guys don’t want think about their competition when browsing online dating sites, and the last thing you want to do is remind them that there is competition.
Yes, this is a kind of double-standard. Pre-selection doesn’t really seem to exist for men.
Rotate Your Photos for Maximum Freshness
The last thing anyone appreciates when it comes to online dating is meeting someone in person and realizing that all of his or her photos were out of date… sometimes years out of date. Nobody likes feeling as though they were tricked into coming on a date under false pretenses and it’s incredibly difficult to recover from your date feeling as though he’s been defrauded.
Yes, those photos from years ago may be absolutely awesome, but unless you’ve been cryogenically frozen all that time, they’re not an accurate portrait of what you look like now. Save those for your Tumblr or your Facebook page and replace them with ones more current.
You want to switch out older photos for newer ones; if you have them, add new photos every four to six months and take the older photos down. If you don’t have much in the way of photos, then it’s time to become “the guy with a camera”. Get some shots with your friends. Have your friends take pictures of you.
And hey: New Years Eve is coming soon. New Years Eve means parties. Parties are a great time to get some more photos.